The year was 2004, and instead of watching my beloved St. Louis Cardinals play a do-or-die World Series game against the Red Sox, I was in a conference room speaking with the president of our homeschooling organization, the husband and wife who were challenging him, and a couple of professional mediators.
My friend Chris had succeeded me as the president, and he and his wife had worked hard to provide all kinds of opportunities for the kids—a football club, talent shows, a science fair, and more things than I can remember. But several of the wives had gotten up a grievance against his wife, baseless and slanderous, and factions had sprung up. So, there we were, trying to save the organization.
We failed. So did the Cardinals, 3-0.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
I have since often wondered at the human propensity to fix things that are not broken. It is something I don’t understand because often the things to be meddled with are not in the fixer’s own purview. “Mind your own business,” we say, and that means two things. What we usually intend is that the meddler should stay out of our affairs. But the saying also implies that the meddler does have business which he is not minding, perhaps because that business is too hard, and meddling is an easy way to be busy and to appear to have accomplished something.
Let me give another example. In 2005, the new president of Providence College, where I had been happily teaching since 1990, decided to discard his predecessor’s hiring policy. The policy was time-consuming, expensive, and unpopular with most of the faculty, especially with those who did not care for the college’s still considerable but also uncertain commitment to the Catholic Faith. The departments would issue invitations to a short list of job candidates, and these would submit written responses to the college’s mission statement, to be approved by the president or the vice president, both of them Dominican priests. If the response was not approved, the candidate would be struck from the list.
Five survivors of that first filter would then come to campus for the usual interviews and classroom observations. The president or vice president would also be among the interviewers. From those five, the department was to submit a list of at least three acceptable candidates; they might rank them, if they chose. The president would choose the winner, usually but by no means always siding with the department’s first choice. But if the department could not find three that were acceptable, the search would be declared a failure, and the department would have to begin a new search in the following year.
The process worked as a strong filter. Since the faculty knew that the president would never choose, let us say, a Marxist English professor more interested in politics than in poetry—as he would have readily available two others to choose from—there was no point in pursuing such a candidate to begin with. The result was that, for example, the politics department hired a Catholic for the first time in twenty years, and we got similar, and excellent, appointments in social work and sociology, along with very strong, healthily unusual, and Catholic or Catholic-friendly hires in English, philosophy, and history.
Now, the business of keeping a college Catholic amid the gales of secularism is hard work, while winning a bit of approval from the faculty was easy. So, as I said, the new president discarded the old policy. And things unraveled.
When I look at the old rite of the Mass, as I find it in the much-used St. Joseph missals, I find something coherent and beautiful, something that Catholics all over the world had been long accustomed to. If the problem was the Latin, then the translation in the missal was right there to use. If the problem was that the laity had little to say or to do, then it might be possible to extend to them most of the responses of the altar boys. What was the point of a radical revision?
Meanwhile, while the Mass was being revised, there really was difficult and urgent work for the Church to do. And that work was neglected—not necessarily by the documents produced by the second Vatican council, but certainly by almost all of what was done later on, invoking the ethereal and indefinite specter of the council, as if cloak-room whisperings and discussions over a bottle of wine had the character of the Holy Spirit.
The most obvious work to be done was to rouse up the faithful against the ubiquitous propaganda of the sexual revolution, the Lonely Revolution. Ages of sexual license are not new in human affairs. But for the first time ever, the license was fueled with contraceptive pills and was championed by the staggering might of the mass media, phenomena the Church had never faced before. Difficult work, as I say; work that would gain you plenty of enemies; much easier to kick around the structure and the language of the Mass and peddle the result to the most compliant among your flock.
We can continue along the same lines. That sexual revolution has devastated millions of families and thwarted millions of others from being formed in the first place. It is festooned with porn and drenched in the blood of the unborn. The worst sufferers, as I have noted again and again, have been those whose income, social surroundings, and scholastic attainment leave them most vulnerable: the working class and the poor. It has been almost sixty years, and you still cannot get more than a bishop here and there who notices the connection; perhaps because many a bishop and priest are deeply uncomfortable at the bar with truck drivers and construction workers.
The education of boys especially is urgent, and boys are not the easiest audience to win. Hard and often thankless work must be done, work that will earn you plenty of enemies. So, it is not done.
I don’t mean to suggest that the meddlers I have in mind are slugs. They are often quite busy. Rivers seek the lowlands, but they can wreck many a levee and wall on the way. Suppose you are in charge of a small Catholic college. Your problem is obvious. There’s a dearth of young people, and a small college is not immediately attractive because its range of courses is necessarily limited. You have to persuade people to do a counterintuitive thing. Then something happens that makes the task all the more difficult—the Covid pandemic, for example.
So, there is hard work to do. You have to reach out to leaders of a wide array of Catholic institutions, to get them to notice you. You have to keep spirits high among the students, the staff, and the professors. You may have to widen your scope to include Christian homeschoolers generally. You have to keep your curriculum sharply distinct, even from that of similar schools, to give young people a clear reason to enroll.
What should you not do, under those circumstances? You should not do things that make you busy about what brings you no advantage. If the president is well respected by his colleagues, if he enjoys the allegiance of your faculty, and if he has built up a network of contacts across the country, you don’t give him the sack, just because you happen not to appreciate some feature of the intellectual life which you do not practice.
If the professors are faithful and intelligent, if they are capable teachers, you let them be—that isn’t your business. You do not pretend to teach them their craft. If the chaplain is wise and beloved, you let him be—and you thank God for him. If the students are generally cheerful and good-natured, you overlook a little slackness here or there, or a little unimportant mischief. After all, imagine what students elsewhere are like!
I don’t claim to any special virtue here. My work occupies me constantly, and I am quite disinclined to let my attention wander toward what somebody else is doing. Nor have I had any desire to fix what is not broken. Meanwhile, a lot of cultural structures are in disrepair, or are in ruins. Let us be about them.